The Internet of Things

There is a lot of noise in the press and online media about the Internet of Things (IoT). You may well ask; ‘What is it?’ and ‘What does it mean to to me?’ We’ll try to answer these here.

07 August 2018

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By Mitchell Duncan, Technical Analyst

There is a lot of noise in the press and online media about the Internet of Things (IoT). You may well ask; ‘What is it?’ and ‘What does it mean to to me?’ We’ll try to answer these here.

The Internet of things (IoT) is the connection via the Internet, of physical objects or ‘things’, i.e., any devices with embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and connectivity which enables these objects to connect and exchange data. Each ‘thing’ is uniquely identifiable through its embedded computing system but is able to inter-operate within the existing Internet infrastructure. It is a domain where devices communicate, swap data and respond as they have been programmed to do, largely without human interaction or intervention.

However, this interconnectedness of devices is not new. Industry has used SCADA[1] for decades to monitor, control and automate processes in applications as varied as; manufacturing automation, control of power plants, oil and gas refining and production, water and waste processing, and telecommunications network control. The main difference is that these systems have been constrained to the application domain, were proprietary, and generally disconnected from the world at large.

So, IoT brings a new level of ‘connectedness’ to the world of devices such that they are now all connected to the world via the Internet, not just to some internal corporate control network. Importantly, the concept of "Things," takes on a much wider variety of devices than formerly understood; such as heart monitoring implants, biochip transponders on farm animals, cameras streaming live feeds for the study of animals in the wild, vehicles with built-in sensors, devices for environmental & pathogen monitoring, or simply the RFID chip in one’s credit or debit card.

The list of applications for IoT is limited by the imagination and capability of designers. These include: the successor to SCADA - IIoT (Industrial Internet of things) - Network control and management of manufacturing equipment and asset management, or process control that prepares industrial applications for the prospect of smart factories of the future; infrastructure management for monitoring and controlling operations of urban and rural infrastructures like railway, electricity and telecommunications networks; in agriculture for the integration of wireless sensors to collect vital information from the environment, in order to improve and automate farming techniques; building automation, where devices can be used to monitor and control the mechanical, electrical and electronic systems used in various types of buildings, e.g., public, private, industrial, or residential. … the list seems endless.

The spectacular rise of IoT has seen the number of interconnected devices rise to 20.35billion worldwide in 2017, with predictions that this will grow to over 75 billion in 2025. The global Internet community did not expect this level of growth and realised that there might be a problem in the future with addressing the explosion of devices emanating from IoT. The solution was to introduce IPV6 (internet Protocol V6) which allows addresses for over 340 trillion devices (the older IPV4 addresses 4.3 billion devices), thus heading off any address shortage problem.

IoT suffers from some of the uncertainties of any new technology enabler. Many in industry see it as a solution “without a problem”, citing that IoT in itself does not offer a value proposition for its adoption. This may not matter to many consumers, at least in the short term, as the population of entrepreneurs grow to produce gadgets that are engineered to communicate via any method available. IoT in itself does differentiate between applications, it is merely a technology concept for interconnecting previously isolated devices.

The future of IoT may not seem clear at the present, but as sound engineering skills are brought to bear on real world problems, it may well be seen that IoT can be used as a sound basis for future information technology research, development and innovation.

[1] SCADA: Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition is a system where data is collected, in real time, from remote sensors for the control and automation of processes.